New Hermopolis, an ecological retreat blooms in Egypt's desert
LONDON - In 2007, Professor Mervat Abdel-Nasser quit a teaching position at a prestigious British university and left the comfort of her London home to live in the harsh Egyptian desert. She was there to make her dream come true — setting up New Hermopolis, an ecological retreat.
New Hermopolis is connected to the thought and philosophy of ancient Hermopolis with its belief in harmonious living and the power of art to transform society.
"The idea of such a project has been in my mind since the early 1980s, triggered by the growing wave of religious extremism that swept the country and made the Egypt of my childhood unrecognisable," Abdel-Nasser said.
"Many factors were behind this sad phenomenon — political, economic and educational but, in my opinion, the single-most important reason was the almost total dissociation of Egyptians with their ancient past."
Abdel-Nasser said studying ancient Egyptian history alongside her work as a psychiatrist in England directed her towards the intellectual ideas behind the great Egyptian monuments, which led to Hermopolis and its philosophy.
"The idea of reviving such an ancient seat of harmony, tolerance and dialogue seemed to me like the right response," Abdel-Nasser said.
New Hermopolis is built on private land near its ancient counterpart in Tuna el-Gebel village, 320km south of Cairo. Construction of the retreat began in 2007 and finished in 2011 when Egypt was caught up in the political turmoil that led to a decline of tourism.
The eco-retreat includes 16 studios with a capacity of 40 visitors, a cultural-heritage centre and an organic farm with olive groves.
Traditional building techniques were used in constructing the limestone structure where insulation and ventilation are maximised through the use of stone, the layout of doors and windows and the shape of domes and vaults.
The retreat is run with consideration to preserving water and energy and all heating is provided by solar energy. There is recycling area and the light fittings were made from recycled iron by an Egyptian artist.
The complex is near many antiquity sites, including ancient Hermopolis, Akhenaten city and the tombs of Beni Hassan with their colourful painted scenes of daily life in ancient Egypt, including wrestling and dancing girls. Three kilometres east of Beni Hassan is the rock Shrine of Artemedios, a small temple cut in the rock decorated in the New Kingdom-style by Queen Hatshepsut, a release stated.
Tuna el-Gebel was the focal point of the cult of Thoth, the god of wisdom where philosophers met. The Greeks linked Thoth to their god Hermes. Hence, the ancient name of the town Hermopolis. Not far from Tuna el-Gebel at Tel el-Amarna is one of Egypt's most important archaeological sites: the remains of the city built by Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BC.
Despite its wealth of culture, the land that was once a great centre for learning and cultural dialogue has become impoverished and overlooked. Middle Egypt has some of the highest levels of poverty in the country and economic opportunities are scarce. That is why the entire staff of New Hermopolis is drawn from nearby villages.
Besides guided trips to antiquities sites, visitors are encouraged to connect with the region's heritage through educational and community engagement programmes. These include traditional music concerts, Egyptian cooking classes, spiritual training, relaxation and meditation.
"We also welcome international artists, writers, musicians and others interested in long-stay residencies for cross-cultural sharing, learning and project collaboration. Our goal is to ensure that our visitors leave the place with a better appreciation for the local communities and a sense of having participated in a worthwhile socially responsible project," Abdel-Nasser said.
"We offer responsible green tourism. Our services appeal to tourists concerned with sustainable, responsible and community-orientated tourism practices."
Abdel-Nasser said she hopes New Hermopolis will become a model for a chain of small heritage villages near antiquity sites across the Nile Valley. She took early retirement from her job as a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Kings College London in 2007 and returned to Egypt to establish New Hermopolis. She was awarded the Creative Tourism Award for Best Residence in 2017 and nominated for the African Responsible Tourism Award in 2018.
Abdel-Nasser has published "The Path to the New Hermopolis: The History, Philosophy and Future of the City of Hermes." In the ﬁnal chapter of the book, she describes her path of physically reviving this centre in the spirit of its past while forging it in the vision of the future.
Karen Dabrowska is an Arab Weekly contributor in London.
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